Thursday, January 24, 2013

USL-MLS Partnership Exploits Potential of both leagues, Where does NASL fit?

Article by Luke Lohr

Throughout Major League Soccer's history, fans and critics alike have asked questions of the league's development. Does the college game develop players properly? How can teams develop without academies? Where will the reserve players find minutes? 

Recent years have brought to light visions brewing in the background with the creation (and recreation) of the reserve league, residential academies being formed, Generation Adidas contracts being expanded,  more publicly understood contracts and more comprehensive scouting by nearly every team in MLS.

The evolution of development took another great leap when Major League Soccer announced a formal partnership with USL Pro, third tier in the American soccer pyramid. A multi-year inter-league partnership that allows MLS Reserve League sides to compete alongside the 13 United Soccer League Pro sides. 

The USL's goal has always been one of development, be it in the men's or women's leagues. The agreement with Major League Soccer allows for many types of development. MLS sides will have its Reserve League teams compete at a professional level in real matches, which are far more beneficial than the occasional scrimmage and repetitive training sessions. At present home and home series are being lined up, though in all probability it will go beyond that.

More formal affiliations between clubs can be cultivated. The New England Revolution for example are partnering with the Rochester Rhinos. Geography certainly plays a factor in these relationships which do still face the realities of finances and travels. In all likelihood, Philadelphia will partner with Harrisburg, DC United with Richmond, the LA Galaxy with the LA Blues and so on.  

While MLS teams can develop their players in the matches, loan spells are also likely. It's already happened to some extent and this agreement makes it all the more likely. If teams and more specifically coaches can get on the same page philosophically it makes it all the more likely that players will have successful loan stints, but also be able to move up the ladder with ease. Smoother transitions mean better soccer, which translates to better results.

It has already been done with several players, including Corey Hertzog who we profiled about his stint with USL side Wilmington Hammerheads. Think also of those who needed time to develop like Jamie Watson who went from MLS, to PDL, to USL to NASL. 

Other examples of partnership include preseason tournaments such as the Desert Diamond Cup hosted by FC Tuscon and the Carolina Cup, which the Charleston Battery often host. Orlando City, whose MLS aspirations are well known, have their own MLS pre-season shindig this year as well.

On the USL front, they now have a huge marketing opportunity. In much the way minor league baseball markets itself as a home for the stars before they're born, the USL can do the same. Just as well, when the teams visit, they'll know with ample time to market the match. Imagine the LA Blues with time to sell tickets for a match against the Galaxy? Not only will single game tickets be sold, but it's more likely packages and season tickets are sold with the promise of MLS matches included. 

Add to that the US Open Cup and MLS now has an even more powerful presence across the continent. USL clubs cover more geography than MLS so the marketing is two fold. Suddenly Major League Soccer can insert is brand into previously untouched territory. 

Where does the NASL fit?

Where does this leave the second division? It has been written and published on this site more than once that a partnership between Major League Soccer and lower divisions would be beneficial to all involved if done correctly. Recently though, the North American Soccer League has made moves that almost suggest NASL plans to go head to head with MLS as early as 2015.

NASL, the second tier in North American soccer, has multiple teams with Soccer Specific Stadiums with more on the way. The Carolina RailHawks just completed renovations on their stadium, the Scorpions of San Antonio are building a new home and the New York Cosmos have proposed a $400 million dollar complex. 

In addition to their stadiums, the second division continues to expand. The Cosmos will begin play in second half of 2013 while NASL Virginia, Ottawa and Indianapolis are expected to arrive in 2014. No salary cap, new stadiums and ambition that comes with adding teams suggests that the NASL sees itself as a potential rival to MLS rather than a blatant understudy. That competition only means good things as competition between teams to fill stadiums, market and produce talent mean more soccer for the masses. 

Where NASL ends up in this though remains to be seen and in all likelihood fans won't know until 2017 how successful its growth and success is. Whether it embraces it's current position as second division or vies for a top tier role in North American Soccer could spell success or doom for the league. 

Rumors have also sprung that while MLS investigated it's relationship with USL, the NASL was also invited to the table. A move in which reportedly NASL walked. While unconfirmed, it does make one wonder where the NASL views itself going forward. 

Reasons for the well documented divide between USL and NASL largely focused on the business model of the two leagues. NASL wanted a more national approach with teams traveling and playing one another while the USL wanted a more region-based fiscally conservative one.

It seems both have gotten there wish and it is to the benefit of all soccer fans across the continent. More matches played, better talent brought in and more coverage of the game only serves the greater good. The beautiful game continues to grow by small steps, leaps and bounds. Regardless, it is growing and that should be celebrated.


  1. I think you hit the nail on the head - the NASL has no desire to be a reserve league for MLS. They're doing reasonably well in stadiums and they continue to expand. I can't blame them for passing on MLS' offer...right now. We might all have a different story in five years if the league collapses from over-expansion.

    I think all three major levels of the pyramid have things to be proud of. We as American soccer fans have a lot to be proud of.

  2. Accurate write up, Luke.

    At this point I'm pretty sure if you talked to Aaron Davidson he will tell you they did indeed walk away from those talks with MLS to incorporate the MLS Reserves into the NASL. That is what happened and it happened around the time that the Cosmos announced their alliance with the NASL. I don't think that was by chance.

    Lots of stuff going on here but the owners of the NASL teams do seem to be taking a new/different stance and in my mind it's no surprise that Commissioner Downs who was talking a lot about an agreement with MLS of some sort is now gone and replaced by someone who is on board with owners who see themselves competing with and not aspiring to MLS.

    1. One thing to remember: most newer NASL clubs have made known their aspirations of one day playing in MLS, which they apparently see as the pinnacle of American soccer. Indianapolis, San Antonio, NoVa, and even the Cosmos have all said at one time or another that they wish to be in MLS.

      This should be a shock to NASL because it's apparent that the league is chasing a goal unlike that of its teams. The NASL may very well see themselves as a D1 league in the future. But it's obvious the teams and their owners do not.

    2. In about 5 years, when the NASL is dead, they will only have themselves to blame for thinking they actually mattered. MLS would crush the NASL.

      Joey Saputo once thumbed his nose at MLS and thought he was in a better league(USL). A year later, he tpushed the USL under a bus and ran to MLS. The other NASL clubs will do the same. When you average about 3,600 fans a game and play very sub par soccer, it is hard to act big.

  3. The NASL might be America's last chance at a true club system. I think it is time for a mass defection to the NASL. By the LA Blues affiliating themselves with the Galaxy it kills what rivalry there could have been. Instead of being two completely independent clubs playing each other it now reeks of an inter-company scrimage. Same is true for Rochester/Red Bulls and other regional hook-ups. Think how awesome it was a couple years back when FC New York and the Red Bulls played. FC New York took an early lead and it was a very entertaining game. Now it would be an FC New York player who is under contract with the Red Bulls scoring on the Red Bulls.... woo hoo, big deal. That type of thing happens everyday in practice and scrimages. All drama is lost.

  4. The NASL has a long-ass way to go before it reaches any sort of parity with MLS. Only one club out of 8 averaged more than 5,000 fans per game last season, and the situations in New York, Puerto Rico and Edmonton are showcasing some obvious growing pains. This league and its clubs need to keep their focus on slow and steady growth before they attempt any sort of head-to-head battle with MLS.

  5. I think it means the death of the NASL and MLS-Pro to D2 by 2016.

    You have to explain to me Luke how you can see the NASL competing with MLS? Where are the owners willing to lose billions like MLS did? Look at the expansion teams. The NoVa team is a afterthought of a minor league baseball team. The Indy team was put together by smart and frugal Peter Wilt. Ottawa??? And don't forget the using the NASL to get into MLS circus that is the Long Island Cosmos. Most of the teams in the NASL would give their right arm to in MLS. Remember Joey Saputo? MLS will pick off Atlanta, SA, Minny, and South Florida. Then the NASL has nothing.

    No salary cap is only because no one spends that much money in the NASL. You'd be crazy too. The payrolls are around 400k. Watch. The Minnesota Stars are going to lose a TON of money this year.

    BTW, you can't say "new stadiums." The Scorpions stadium is in large part to their commitment to wanting to be in MLS. The RailHawks had NOTHING to do with the renovations at WakeMed. It was to lure back to the NCAA championships. The RailHawks draw under 4,000 and didn't need to new space. And the Cosmos? Wake me when that happens. Things don't look as rosy as you paint.

    David Downs is a very smart man. Something tells me he knew to eventual outcome and didn't like and got off. Interesting that Peterson is an NFL guy with close ties to Garber.

  6. As soon as the NASL gets their head out of their collective rear ends they'll realize that a three tiered club system is what people want. True fans of the beautiful game would relish the opportunity to see relegation and promotion battles between the three tiers. MLS and USL seem to be able to see the wisdon and benefit to this but the NASL and their egos can't seem to get out of the way.

    1. If you think this is in any way a move by MLS and USL towards pro/rel you are insane. If anything this is going the other way. MLS is ensuring, by forming these partnerships, that MLS becomes like the MLB, NHL, and NBA. The only way MLS can achieve the monopoly they want is to make sure these D2 and D3 teams stay minor, with no shot of moving up or down.

  7. MLS takes its' usual anti-competitive economic stance and USL-Pro was in a desperate position.

    USL is the new PDL. Regional leagues and the end of a national D3.

    The only way to measure the effect is by US MNT on the world stage. I reckon it's a marginal improvement at best.

    Far more significant would be a NPSL-PDL merger.

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  9. I'm an Atlanta fan and really enjoy going to the games acs following the team but this idea of going against the MLS by the end of the decade isn't a good idea. I agree with the other replies in that MLS will just pick up the top drawing teams or the USL will jump tiers and the NASL will move down and/or fold as so many other wanna be leagues have. I found this article in hopes of finding something about a partnership between MLS and NASL. The best move would have been for the NASL to patner with the MLS. Use MLS money to better their own brand even if out meant having to play a certain number of MLS reserves each game. Ultimately I'd like to see all of these divisions work together so that the level of soccer in America is better all around.

  10. All of you are kind of missing the point. MLS is ensuring its monopoly with this move. They are not uping the level of soocer in America in fact they are doing exactly the opposite. What we really need is for the USSF for finally make these leagues work together. I can understand them giving the NASL time to figure out if it is Div. 1,2 or 3 and then forcing teams to move up and down according to how they finish the season. What MLS and USL are doing is making sure soccer ends up like every other sport in America there will be a pro team and a team you bring your kids to because it is really really cheap.

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